Tackling the problem of youth unemployment

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Promoting youth employment and employability requires an integrated effort that includes action in the areas of education, skills development, the job supply and support for young, low-income entrepreneurs. These initiatives must provide for participation by various stakeholders, from the State to private entrepreneurs, including non-governmental organizations, local authorities, youth leaders, the media, parents’ associations, etc.

A.        With regard to formal education, regional data show that, on average, a minimum of 12 years of formal schooling are now required for access to employment opportunities that will prevent poverty or offer a way out of it. The data also indicate that the highest returns on education go to those who complete their secondary and university education.

Although the countries of the region continue to make progress towards expanding the coverage of secondary education with a view to promoting a better future for young people by enabling them to take part in production, in most countries the gap between high-income and low-income groups in terms of secondary and higher education coverage has also tended to widen in recent decades. Consequently, efforts in the area of education should focus on achieving universal coverage, preferably up to the end of secondary school, and on reducing differences in the quality of the education provided to different socio-economic groups.

Strenuous efforts are therefore needed to ensure that current education reforms give priority to keeping adolescents from vulnerable groups in secondary school and to encourage more low-income students to enter higher education in order to provide more democratic access to productive employment in the future. In view of the changes taking place in employment styles and career paths, it is essential to promote the use of computers and information technologies (mainly networking) in schools in order to narrow the digital divide. It is equally important, in conjunction with these new tools, to develop higher cognitive functions by orienting the learning process towards problem identification and problem solving, increasing the capacity for reflection and creativity, enhancing the ability to distinguish between what is relevant and what is not and developing planning and research skills, since these functions are vital in an information-saturated world.

B.         Professional training, vocational skills development and support for young, low-income entrepreneurs are essential and require greater investment in the quality and coverage of the relevant programmes, a qualitative leap in adapting training and skills development to new employment demands and technological change and the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including universities, entrepreneurs’ and employers’ associations, financial agents and others.

The biggest challenge in this regard should continue to be vocational training coupled with the provision of initial work experiences. This approach addresses two of the primary causes of youth unemployment: lack of experience and lack of training. The impact of vocational training should be maximized through the use of strategies for targeting (aimed at the most vulnerable youth sectors), decentralization (assigning a more active role to the municipal level) and inter-agency cooperation (with the widest possible range of training institutions, both public and private), taking a comprehensive approach (by combining training with internships and support for job placement) based on labour market agreements (basically between training entities and firms) and supported by stringent monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

A national training and skills development system which provides internships in businesses and links with employers, is technically up to date and stays abreast of changes in the job supply could substantially improve the options for young people who do not have a university education. Another important field of endeavour is the provision of support in the form of access to financing, information and networks for young entrepreneurs wishing to establish viable microenterprises and small businesses, as a large proportion of the jobs now being created in the region are in small businesses.  Young entrepreneurs should receive particular support in the use of and access to new information and communication technologies, since incorporation into contact and information networks is, and will increasingly be, the most effective and efficient way to generate value added in microenterprises and small businesses. To the extent that young people are enthusiastic and quick to learn about these new technologies and about the use of electronic networks, this asset gives them great autonomy in acquiring productive knowledge, using market information, advertising their skills, generating alliances and contacts and finding better areas of specialization. 

Vocational training and education should take a less rigid approach, given the increasingly profound changes taking place in labour markets. They should focus on developing cross-cutting competencies, providing skills for occupational "families" rather than for a specific occupation, promoting an entrepreneurial spirit and teaching the basic principles and techniques of management. All these efforts should aim at providing training in a wide range of substantive areas and processes under the governing concept of transition training. They should form training chains designed to meet young people’s needs at four different stages: (a) when they are still in the education system; (b) when they leave the system and enter the labour market in search of their first job; (c) when they are engaged in very low-productivity informal activities or are chronically unemployed; and (d) when they have found an occupation and need to become integrated into ongoing training chains to improve their assets and their labour-market participation.

C.        Action at the macro level is needed, both in relation to employment policy (and its coordination with economic policy) and in the regulation of labour markets. Many of the efforts made in these areas may end in failure, however, so long as most countries in the region continue to promote a liberalization-privatization-deregulation dynamic which restricts employment, widens the gap between the formal and informal sectors and between specialized and non-specialized activities, deprives people of social protection if they lose their jobs, makes employment more precarious and discontinuous and is indifferent to the dangerous and increasing correlation between being “young” and being “excluded”.

Proactive labour policies must be based on an awareness that job creation is sustainable only when the economic activities concerned are competitive in the long term. In Latin America, employment has grown much more rapidly in Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean (3.7% per year during the 1990s as a whole), which have been specializing in exports of manufactures, than in the South American countries (2.9% per year over the same period), where natural-resource-based exports have been relatively more important. The retooling of production activities and increased labour mobility make it necessary to implement aggressive vocational training policies.

Public investment, productive innovation and macroeconomic stabilization policies should place greater emphasis on job creation. This is not only a matter of expanding job opportunities for young people. It is also a means of incorporating new generations into the production system, which is important because it is they who have the assets best suited to the new production requirements that have arisen in open markets: more years of education, which make it possible to increase the intellectual value added of production; more familiarity with the new information and communication technologies; and more flexibility in adapting to new types of work.

D.        Special programmes to improve the job prospects of particularly vulnerable groups should be implemented and/or expanded.  Not all young people are affected to the same extent by unemployment and problems with employment. Rates of unemployment and underemployment are much higher among young people who belong to ethnic minorities, who have low levels of education, who live in far-flung rural communities, who have some level of disability or who have a history of violent crime. To break the vicious circle of unemployment and exclusion, it is necessary to take specific actions in relation to these groups. These actions may include State subsidies for private firms that hire young people in such situations, quotas in public-sector employment for young people in these groups, various indirect forms of affirmative action, special job training programmes focusing on specific vulnerabilities and vocational guidance and placement programmes for these groups. In general, these actions require concerted efforts by the State (especially ministries of labour and training services), the private sector and civil-society support associations

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